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Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The October Palace

March 17, 2017


In October Palace, published in 1994, we finally see a fully mature poet, no longer a developing talent. Hirshfield now moves beyond the formulas of writers’ workshop poems and finds the unique voice and range of experiences that has continually brought her the prizes and grants necessary for a sustainable poetic career.

Perhaps the overall theme of October Palace is that every moment of one’s life possesses its own meaning. This theme can be seen, perhaps most obviously, in “Percolation.” The speaker is in the midst of wasting a day confined inside because of the rain. But as she meditates upon her confinement, and as she becomes aware of a frog croaking “a tuneless anthem,” she develops serenity from the conviction that: “Surely all Being at bottom is happy:/ soaked to the bone, sopped at the root. . . .” And she discovers that life-giving peace must be wrung out of all experience,

yielding as coffee grounds

yield to their percolation, blushing, completely seduced, assenting as they give in to the downrushing water,

the murmur of falling. . . .

In many of her poems Hirshfield enjoys relating narratives from various folk and historical legends. For example, in “A Plenitude,”one of my favorites, Hirshfield considers the nature of fullness, completeness—plenitude-by relating a common story from Renaissance art:

But there is the story, too,

of a young painter meeting the envoy of a Pope.

Asked for a work by which his art

could be weighed against others’, he dipped his stylus—

with great courtesy, according to Vasari—

in red ink, and drew a single, perfect O.


My next installment in this series will be March 17. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Of Gravity & Angels, Part II

March 16, 2017


One of the more memorable poems from Of Gravity & Angels is “Dialogue” which begins: “A friend says,/’I’m always practicing to be an old woman.’” Another friend considers herself differently: “’I see myself young, maybe fourteen.’” The speaker, however, identifies with neither friend:

But when I lean to that mirror

a blackbird wing rises,

dark, flashing red at the shoulder,


and no woman is there

to pin flowers over the

place where her left breast falls.


Another often read poem is “The Song”:

The tree, cut down this morning,

is already chainsawed and quartered. . .

Not an instant too early, its girl slipped away.

She is singing now, a small figure

glimpsed in the surface of the pond.

All material nature has its own spirit. Here the spirit leaves the tree but never completely. In the same way as the tree will grieve its lost spirit, “the wood, if taken too quickly, will sing/ a little in the stove, still remembering her.

My next installment in this series will be March 17. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Of Gravity & Angels, Part I

March 15, 2017


As I said in an earlier post in this series, most of what I am posting comes from some papers I wrote and published many years ago. As I re-read Hirshfield today I probably would have different and more updated ideas about her work. And nearly everything I am including in this series does not have the hindsight that might would come after keeping up with Hirshfield’s later work. Especially, I would probably have a different perspective since her 2015 important Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, which is her most mature statement of her philosophy of poetry. Nevertheless, Of Gravity & Angels remains one of my favorite books of contemporary poetry.

Jane Hirshfield’s second book of poetry, published in 1988 continues to demonstrate he mastery of language yet nearly half of the poems in this volume include the pronoun “I.” For most of the poems, the self remains integral to the text.

At her public readings and in her interviews, the poet frequently talks of her love for horses and her use of horses in her poems. In “After Work,” we see a typical Hirshfield horse poem. The poem takes a straightforward description of an habitual moment in her life, the after work feeding of the horses, and transforms the experience into meaning:

I stop the car along the pasture edge,

gather up bags of corncobs from the back,

and get out.

Two whistles, one for each,

and familiar sounds draw close in darkness. . .

The horses come and eagerly devour corncobs brought by the speaker. But, despite the personal nature of this ordinary experience, Hirshfield objectifies it. The horses don’t “just” come. They come “conjured out of sleep”; they come with “each small noise and scent/heavy with earth, simple beyond communion.


My next installment in this series will be March 16. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The First Book, Alaya

March 13, 2017


Jane Hirshfield’s first book of poetry was part of the Quarterly Review of Literature’s poetry series of 1982. “Alaya” on the one hand means “home” but also is, Hirshfield has said, “a Buddhist term meaning ‘the consciousness which is the storehouse of experience,’ of memory. . . .the place where seed-grain is kept.”

“The Gift” from Alaya points in the direction of Hirshfield’s tendency in her later work to objectify all reality, even the personal:

From how many hands

your body comes to me,

and to how many will I pass it on. . . .

Here “your body” comes, not “you come to me,” and the speaker will pass “it,” the body, on, instead of passing on such things as his memory, his influence, or even his love. The poem is remarkable for its early mature handling of imagery and phrasing. The person addressed, for example, exaggerates “nothing” and leans “into the wind” and is “lost/but like a flock of geese.” But, of course, flocks of geese don’t really get lost. The poem ends as many of Hirshfield’s poems do, and as many poems written in writing workshops often do, with a significant metaphor to draw meaning from the experience of this poem:

Slowly now,

lift the lid of the box:

there is nothing inside.

I give this to you, love. . . .

The movement of the poem, then, would ordinarily be seen as a movement from the physical, the body, to the immaterial, the soul, but a Hirshfield poem, perhaps because of the poet’s Zen beliefs, will not distinguish between physical and immaterial. The soul and body are indistinguishable. Despite the objective displacement of the self in “The Gift,” however, much of Hirshfield’s early poetry maintains a personal point of view both in Alaya and in her next book. Nevertheless, “The Gift” has become one of Hirshfield’s most anthologized poems and one often posted on social media.

My next installment in this series will be March 15. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

On This Date: Friedrich von Schlegel Was Born

March 10, 2017


On this date in 1772 Friedrich von Schlegel was born in Hanover. He died in 1829. Here are a few notes I made in writing my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature.

Friedrich von Schlegel, the younger brother of August Wilhelm von Schlegel, and one of the early Jena Romantics, was a leading German Romantic theorist whose ideas were popularized by his brother. He published frequently in the Athenaeum Magazine. His writings on Greek, Indic, and modern literature established a mode of thinking for his contemporaries and successors. Schlegel was notable for his studies of the history of literature, particularly Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern, published in 1818. His method was to contrast classical and romantic literature and expound his theory of what he termed “romantic irony,” or the consciousness on the part of the artist of the unbridgeable gap between the ideal artistic goal and the limited possibilities of achievement.

Paul Varner

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Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Celebration of the Ordinary

March 9, 2017


Jane Hirshfield became a distinct voice in poetry at the turn of the century through her sensitive observation of the significance of ordinary details of daily life. Unlike most poets of the western tradition, Hirshfield tends to be non-human centered in her poetry. In other words, her poetry usually does not deal with human relationships, character, or direct human interaction of various kinds. Instead, her poetry objectifies the material of our existence and relates matter to the individual or abstracted human nature. A typical poem of Hirshfield’s mature work, for example, will note an utterly mundane object such as a grouping of broken seashells, the concept of rooms, crickets, cucumbers, the nature of leather, and then proceed to relate it all to the human soul. Her poetry, in short, resembles impressionist still lifes.

While her work as translator and editor of women’s poetry indicates Hirshfield’s strong feminist nature, little of her poetry is political in the usual sense of direct comment on specific issues, but all of her work is political in the sense of integrating the stirrings of the heart, one of her favorite images, with the political realities that surround us all.

No doubt the source for these characteristics of her poetry and for her very concept of what poetry is, “The magnification of being,” derives from her strong Zen Buddhist training. Her emphasis on “compassion, on the preexistent unity of subject and object, on nature, on the self-sufficient suchness of being, and on the daunting challenge of accepting transitoriness,” Peter Harris notes, are central themes in her poetry derived from Buddhism. Hirshfield does not, however, burden her poetry with heavy, overt Zen attitudes. Only occasionally is there direct reference to Buddhism.

Hirshfield considers herself an eclectic poet not tied to any one tradition. Her earliest influences developed from English sonnets and Latin lyrical verse, but early on she developed an interest in Japanese poetry, first through haiku, and later in Aztec, Eskimo, and court poetry of ancient India. She has mentioned her chief American influences as coming from Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Galway Kinnell, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Syder, and Robert Hass.

My next installment in this series will be March 13. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

On this Day in History: Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem First Performed


Christopher Innvar, Ian Bedford, and Veanne Cox in the 2006 production of The Beaux’ Stratagem at The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. (© Carol Rosegg)

On this day in history, March 8, 1707, British playwright George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem made its debut in London at the Theatre Royal in the Haymarket. This theatre is usually simply called The Haymarket.

George Farquhar (1678-1707) began his career in the theatre as an actor until he accidentally wounded a fellow actor. Abandoning acting, he set out to write for the London stage. His wife tricked him into marriage by pretending to be an heiress. Farquhar forgave her and the marriage was evidently happy. His two plays were The Recruiting Officer (1706) and our play today. Both plays were successful, yet Farquhar nevertheless died at age 30 in poverty as The Beaux’s Stratagem made its initial run.

If you haven’t read or seen performed this classic play in awhile, here is a simple summary of its complex plot by Martin S. Day: “Aimwell and Archer are the beaux, and their stratagem is to recoup their lost fortunes by marrying rich country girls near Litchfield by means of a complicated imposture. Archer weds Dorinda, daughter of Lady Bountiful. Aimwell almost seduces Mrs. Sullen, but she is saved because a gang of thieves breaks into the house. The heroes subdue the ransackers, and Mrs. Sullen and her churlish husband agree to divorce. Aimwell is to be her next husband.”

Here a few notes I once published in an essay for Salem Press years ago: Unlike most Restoration comedies of manners, The Beaux’ Stratagem is set in the country instead of London. As a result of the country setting emphasis is placed on low characters—innkeepers, servants, and highwaymen—instead of fashionable society. Archer and Aimwell, however, are newly arrived from the city and much of the play’s force derives from the contrast of country life versus city life. The two settings of the play, the inn and Lady Bountiful’s house reflect this conflict.

An inn in Litchfield is a way station for travelers coming and going from London to the country. As such it is utterly corrupt. At the inn a dishonest highwaymen plot to commit crimes with the complicity of a crooked innkeeper who even tries to corrupt his daughter for money. At the inn beaux from London plot stratagems. It is the forces from the inn that invade Lady Bountiful’s house in an attempt to destroy it.

In contrast to the world of the inn, Lady Bountiful’s house represents the simple virtues and charity of the best of the country. At Lady Bountiful’s house benevolence and concern for others dominate. Here the sick are healed and the corrupt are converted to virtue. This world is invaded by forces from the corrupt town by means of the highwaymen from the inn and by means of the beaux from the city. The robbers attempt to steal material goods while the beaux attempt to steal female virtue as well as money in Dorinda’s fortune. These corrupt forces eventually are defeated or neutralized while the country values of Lady Bountiful dominate at last.

Paul Varner

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Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: A Short Biography

March 7, 2017


In this fourth installment of my series on Jane Hirshfield let me give you a few details of her life. She was born in New York, New York to Robert and Harriet Hirshfield. Her father was a clothing manufacturer and her mother was a secretary. From her childhood Hirshfield wanted to be a writer. After her first book was published her mother showed Hirshfield a note written on large lined paper from the first grade in which the young Hirshfield had written “I want to be a writer when I grow up.” Her first poem was published in 1973 after she had just graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University with an independent major in creative writing and literature in translation. She was part of Princeton’s first graduating class that included women. Despite early publication, she withdrew from the writing life for eight years as she entered study at the San Francisco Zen Center. In 1979 she was lay-ordained in the lineage of Soto Zen and left the life of withdrawal. Since that time, Hirshfield has devoted her life to writing, translation, and editing, earning numerous awards and grants. From 1991 to 1998 she served as lecturer in creative writing at the University of San Francisco and served as visiting associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley in 1995. Since 1999 she has served on the core M.F.A. faculty of Bennington College. In 2000 she was appointed Elliston Visiting Poetry Professor at the University of Cincinnati.

My next installment in this series will be March 9. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner


On this Date: Premier of The Way of the World

March 4, 2017

The Premier of The Way of the World


The premier of what many consider the greatest comedy of manners in English theatre history occurred sometime in March of 1700 when William Congreve’s (1670-1729) The Way of the World first took the stage at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. It was to be the last of Congreve’s plays. After the poor initial reception Congreve abandoned theatre for more profitable ventures.

If you don’t remember the details of the plot, nobody can blame you. It’s complicated even by Restoration comedy standards. Here’s a short synopsis from Martin S. Day:

Lady Wishfort, in addition to her own estates, controls the property of Mrs. Fainall, her daughter, and Millamant, her niece. Mrs. Fainall’s former lover, Mirabell, is now interested in Millamant. Mirabell disguises his servant Waitwell (already married) as a nobleman, hoping for his marriage to Lady Wishfort. Then, on the threat of telling the world how he was duped, Mirabell can blackmail Lady Wishfort into giving him Millamant and her property.

Learning of his wife’s former relations with Mirabell, Fainall threatens full revelation unless all property is signed over to him. The sweethearts, Millamant and Mirabell, come to an agreement, but it appears that their fortunes are ruined. Mirabell, however, produces a deed from Mrs. Fainall before her marriage that conveys all her property to Mirabell. Triumphant in law and in the ways of the world, Mirabell is united to Millamant.


Maggie Smith with Jerermy Brett, “The Way of The World”, Stratford, Ontario, 1976.

Here is a short piece I wrote for Salem Press years ago about the physical world of The Way of the World:

William Congreve’s The Way of the World is the quintessential English comedy of manners. As such, the world of this play revolves around the values of fashionable seventeenth-century London.

London, England. The world of the play is a world of coffee-houses and periwigs and elaborately formal dress. It is an upper-class world of gallants, fine ladies, and would-be gallants and attractive ladies. The world of trade and agriculture surrounds this world but is not a part of it except by way of contrast.

A Chocolate-house. Act One takes place at a chocolate house. Such houses as Will’s near Covent Garden and White’s near St. James Park were fashionable meeting places of young gallants and wits. Often gaming was associated with them.

St. James Park. Act Two occurs out of doors in the fashionable Mall area of St. James Park. The Mall was a long tract in St. James that was formerly used for playing paille-maille, or pall-mall. By the time of this play it was known as a fashionable park used for walking, for meeting lovers, and for displaying one’s fashion. It is often confused with Pall Mall, another park close by to the north.

The Country. Although no scene in the play occurs in the country, the country always is in the background. Sir Wilful Witwoud is a country booby who serves as a butt of ridicule for all. His half brother, Witwoud, has done all he can to eradicate traces of the country from his manners, dress, and speech, but without success. No character in the play is associated in a positive way with the country. Millamant, perhaps the most normative character of the play loathes the country, saying, “I loathe the country and everything that relates to it.”

Follow The Literary Life blog. Paul Varner


Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Her Achievements

March 3, 2017


I am developing in The Literary Life a series, so far with 13 installments on the American poet Jane Hirshfield. Click back on the earlier posts for some of my reasons for this series.

Jane Hirshfield’s honors include The Poetry Center Book Award, fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockerfeller Foundations, Columbia University’s translation Center Award, the Commonwealth Club of California Poetry Medal, and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award.

Her books have been finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award and England’s T. S. Eliot Prize; they have been named best books of the year by The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Amazon, and Financial Times; and they have won the the Poetry Center Book Award, and the Donald Hall–Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. Hirshfield has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets. Her poems appear in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement, Poetry, The New Republic, and eight editions of The Best American Poetry. She is a current chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

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